I have been fully focused on my computer screen for the past five hours, where has the time gone? The last thing I remember I fancied taking a break from the RPG title I was working through to pick up an indie game to start reviewing it. Now after hundreds of cycles and many many hours that have flown by I can finally prise myself away from Cycle 28 to give you my thoughts on it!
Cycle 28 by Pill Bug Interactive
For the past few days I’ve had the good fortune to have early access to review indie title Cycle 28 from Pill Bug Interactive, based in Cardiff. Pill Bug is a two-man team of Sean Walton and Dave Towsey, both lecturers in South Wales. Cycle 28 released March 9th on Steam priced at £3.99/$4.99/€4.99.
You play as Flight Lieutenant Olivia Bergen, a low ranking officer who due to circumstances unknown has been separated from her fleet, a classic setting for an arcade space shooter. However here is where things take a turn for the mysterious. Bergen is stuck in an endless time loop, trying to make sense of her surroundings, hostiles in all directions, trapped, killed and unable to escape from Cycle 27. You start the game, as you do every time, dropping out of warp when the cycle kicks in and at the same start point every time “they” are waiting for you.
The aim of the game is to prolong your life, get better, stronger until you can call yourself an ace under the stars and in doing so, hopefully find a way to break out of the endless, hopeless cycle and solve the mystery as to who these hostiles are, where you are and if you can get back to your fleet. Each time you progress and improve, more of the mystery unfolds, your experiences lending you more strength going into the next cycle…just like the Tom Cruise movie, End of Tomorrow. The story and setting are a fantastic blend of simplicity and mystery that allow anyone to engage with the story, understand whats going on and most importantly, have a desire to see what happens next. If next ever comes.
Cycle 28 sits in the mold of a classic arcade shooter reminiscent of retro and modern takes on the genre. The game therefore understandably demands complete focus, smart decisions and more than a fair share of lucky piloting.
As the clock ticks down, enemies generally get bigger, more aggressive and appear in bigger and bigger groups making balancing scoring points and staying alive increasingly more challenging.
What makes a good 2D Space Shooter?
In recent years there have been a number of new space shooters that don’t match up to the classics. They just don’t “feel” right. In my opinion, what features make a good 2D space shooter are visuals, music, gameplay design and replayability. The age-old formula that kept people coming back to arcades to spend their well-earned pocket money, easy to access games that are difficult to master.
Visuals and Music
Cycle 28 does a lot of things right and the modern take on a classic retro design works very well. I’m not going to beat about the bush here, yes Cycle28 looks very basic and is very basic. That, however, is not a bad thing in the slightest when it comes to a 2D space shooter. Pill Bug has done a great job ensuring the simple functional design looks and performs solidly. The backdrop of space contrasts nicely with spacecraft, weapon fire and most importantly all the explosions. I would have liked the weapon fire to vary in colour to your spaceship as it is sometimes easy to get lost in the carnage on the screen. All enemies are orange and all friendly fire, ships, and your ship are the same blues so there can be a lot of blue on the screen at once.
The 2D camera design is really good, your ship is not locked to the center of the screen, the camera floats behind you and has a momentum of its own. If you suddenly stop it will take a second for the camera to center. This fluid movement isn’t jarring and really adds to the depth of experience and immerses you into the game.
The music really shines through and pulls all elements of the game together! The music is perfectly suited to Cycle 28 and the game is designed to build up in intensity as the music builds which I really loved. The soundtrack for Cycle 28 is a powerfully atmospheric mix of modern orchestral and retro electronic sounds by Jordan Rees (Composer of trailer music for The Mummy [Universal Pictures], Mother [Paramount Pictures], The Defenders [Marvel Studios]).
The music builds as the gameplay intensifies and works exactly as intended. As you get pumped up and your score is getting good the music kicks in and you really start to feel your in the midst of a heroic last stand. Incredible job!
I probably should also mention here the game audio, the pops, weapon discharge and explosions all sound great and mix well with the music. The audio also is very retro and adds to Cycle 28’s overall classic feel which I enjoyed.
So yes it was a bit basic to look at, but oh boy did it feel good.
There are lots of really important features to a game but undoubtedly the gameplay is one of the biggest. Cycle 28 has really fluid fast-paced combat which is designed around momentum and inertia. Controlling drifting while keeping up suppressing fire is a skill you need to master.
The controls are very simple and add to the easy to play, hard to master feel of Cycle 28 overall. You can play with keyboard or controller if you are so inclined. I opted to play with my keyboard and after remapping controls to those I felt comfortable with, I was quickly able to get used to how the game played and really enjoy how mastering a number of flashy maneuvers to beat different enemies became increasingly more rewarding the better I got at the game. This game is fun to play!
At the time of writing this review, I’m sat at 2nd place on the global leaderboard which only includes press and steam curators at this moment. I would like to claim this is purely down to skill and skill alone. But in reality, it has come down to a steady improvement over many hours (and many cycles) and the fun I have had with the game along the way.
Even though the game is literally all about repeating a life cycle over and over, no two rounds are ever quite the same with random pathing AI and increasingly hectic battles. I have accidentally died so many times, felt hard done by so many times, got myself killed so many times, but still, I have come back for more.
I hand on heart believe I can beat my current high score and if I get a round where I time everything perfect and keep my multiplier ticking I could take the top spot. At least until the game launches and many more better players than I get their hands on the game!
Cycle 28 to its very core has been designed with replayability in mind including the progression system and Evolving Storyline which I already touched on.
To upgrade your ship you need to beat your current high score. Simple, right? Developers Sean and Dave from Pill Bug Interactive go in depth as to why they designed the upgrade system in this way in a recent development diary.
I think its a stroke of genius as it allows any person to get access to the full game, get the same feeling of progression and the same gratification when you do get a new high score.
Yes, this system can be “cheesed” by intentionally getting low scores in your first few rounds. this is a choice the developers ran with and I agree its fine. Just because players can easily gain access to the best weapons, there is no bragging right to be gained from it. Your bragging rights come from beating your own score and if you’re a little more hardcore your position on the global leaderboard.
The upgrade system itself allows for lots of interesting combinations, varied performance and gameplay, you can have more turrets and go for the “shoot as much as possible” approach, reactive armaments for counter-attacking when taking damage or even drone builds which are my personal favorite.
I performed best when I used a combination of Heavy Drones and Drone Gun to spawn friendly AI drones as often as possible. A drone will inflict a small amount of damage to enemies which is nice, more importantly for my strategy they can act as moving meatshields to absorb enemy fire. I used this defensive approach to prevent taking damage and keeping my multiplier as high as possible for as long as possible.
However, there is something to be said for loading extra guns on the side and rear of your ship so you can shoot in every direction and take the spin, spray and pray approach. Not always recommended, but fun nevertheless.
With a possible 45 configurations of upgrades, you will have to play around to see what works best for you tactically. My only gripe around the upgrade system is that your ship doesn’t change in appearance with the upgrades which would have been nice, but by no means necessary.
Will I pick this game up again in the future? Absolutely. When I need a break from other games or just want to switch off for half an hour this game is perfect for that. It takes your full focus so if your mind is swimming with thoughts this is the game to knock those cobwebs out.
Evolving Story and the mystery to be solved
As I mentioned at the start, the story unfolds the more you play and the better you get, something that keeps you playing other than purely just to beat your high score. There is more to the game than simply a 2D space shooter.
“You don’t know who they are or what they want. You just know you’re the only thing between them and home. So you get better, faster, stronger. Maybe one of these Cycle’s you’ll figure it out. Until then, you can only keep dying.”
Pill Bug Interactive have interestingly put down a wager, a challenge if you will. To the first person to discover the Secret of Cycle 28 after unlocking the final achievement and emails (sent to email@example.com) the solution to the ground-hog-day conundrum facing Flight Lieutenant Olivia Bergen, will win the Pill Bug Golden Ticket! The Golden Ticket will give you access to all Pill Bug games ever made, forever… I think that’s not only a pretty cool marketing idea but also a nice reward for a loyal fan of the game and company.
This is what Pill Bug had to say about the puzzle they have put in place:
“There are two sides to Cycle 28. On one hand, there is the satisfying space combat which keeps you coming back to do just one more run. On its own, that will be enough for most people, but we wanted to put something extra in for players who love a mystery. That’s where the second side of Cycle 28 comes in, a community-driven puzzle which may require some international collaboration.
Since this will be a community effort the Golden Ticket winner will also be able to nominate up to five players who helped them in their quest for answers. Those nominated players will receive exclusive Cycle 28 rewards and content.
Not all of the clues have been made available yet, so press and beta testers do not have an unfair advantage (looking at the leaderboard they are too busy trying to beat each others’ high scores anyway). The final clues will be carefully positioned on Friday when the game releases.”
Believe me when I say I’ve been looking… hard! The problem I’m facing personally is that I find it so damn appealing constantly trying to beat my own score.
In a few words
Cycle 28 is a fast-paced modern take on a classic 2D space shooter that is simple in design and offers great replayability. The skill ceiling is only as high as you want to make it and the action that unfolds on screen is accompanied by a great soundtrack.
If you’re looking for a game that is well worth the measly asking price of £3.99 then look no further, it’s a great game to pick up and have a blast on and will only take up as much time as you want to put into it.